Fit for Emperors & Popes

October 29, 2022
Rome's Castelli towns make for relaxing getaways from the city

First Roman emperors, then pontiffs. Throughout the ages, when the powerful and the privileged wanted to escape the summer heat of Rome, they headed for their villas in the hills -- the Alban Hills, that is, southeast of Rome. Contemporary citizens of Rome still follow that tradition, flocking to the hill towns known collectively as the Castelli Romani (Roman Castle towns), or more simply, I Castelli, for cooling breezes, fine wines and panoramic views.

Visitors in Rome in the summer months would be wise to take the Romans’ lead and consider taking a day trip -- or making an evening of it -- by dining in the historic centers of quaint towns or strolling near scenic lakes.

While relaxing vibes and centuries of history permeate the Castelli Romani, each town boasts its own charm, gastronomic specialties and eagerly awaited annual festivals known as sagre.

Perhaps the best-known town is Castel Gandolfo because it hosts the papal summer palace, which, being property of the Holy See, enjoys extraterritorial status. Pope John Paul spent much of his summers there, helicoptering it to Rome for papal appointments. During the summer, the faithful and the curious could see the pontiff, close up, by crowding into the palace courtyard for the traditional Sunday noon greeting.

The current pope, Francis, hasn’t kept up the habit of summering in the Castelli, although visitors might be surprised. One recent sizzling day in Rome, the retired pope, Benedict XVI went to the papal palace to stroll in its manicured gardens, then headed to dinner in another town, Rocca di Papa, aptly named “The Pope’s Rock.’’

While associated with popes, Castel Gandolfo, which sits just above Lake Albano, has history going back thousands of years. It is perched on the site of Alba Longa, founded, according to legend, some 500 years before Rome's own beginnings. Indeed the sprawling papal estate was constructed on the ruins of the Villa of Domitian, one of the earlier ancient Roman emperor.

During the 1960 summer Olympics, canoeing events were held on the lake. Depending on the season, tourists can rent canoes, pedal boats or swim in the lake, considered the deepest lake of volcanic origin in Italy.

While the main square of the town can be a bit touristy, due to souvenir shops linked to Castel Gandolfo’s Vatican ties, other Castelli towns seem almost quaint and tranquil, like Lanuvio, which Lanuvio features a medieval section with steep streets.

Nemi is a tiny town along its own lake and famed for its strawberries. When the berries are ripe for the picking, in May and June, Romans join locals for festivals celebrating the fruit, which is enjoyed in simple dishes. Instead of dotting cakes, strawberries star on their own, sliced in bowls and topped with a little sugar, gelato, or lemon juice.

Besides the delicious fruit, Nemi is also noted for archaeological discoveries. Caligula had ships built in tribute to Diana the goddess, whose temple’s reflection could be seen on the waters.

Genzano has two popular town festivals. One is held in connection with the religious feast day of Corpus Christi. Over several days, the main is strewn with petals, forming a kind of design that looks like a carpet of flowers. On the Monday after the weekend festival, the local children get to run down the street, gleefully crushing the petals with their feet.

In late summer-early fall, Genzano celebrates its renowned bread with a festival. Crusty on the outside, soft on the inside, the bread is delivered freshly baked daily to many bakeries in Rome, which put up signs in their windows like “Pane di Genzano Oggi’’ (Genzano bread today.) There are town rivalries over which has the best bread -- another hill town Lariano’s bread is also found in fine bakeries in Rome.

If you want to make sandwiches out of your tasty Genzano loaf, head to Ariccia for some slices of porchetta, or roast pork, a favorite in many Roman delis.

The Castelli are toasted for their wines, which enjoy specially bestowed designations from the European Union indicating they were produced from local grapes. The area’s soil, of volcanic origin, is often cited for the success of its vineyards. While reds and rose’ wines are produced, the most celebrated Castelli wines are its whites, with their characteristic straw-yellow color. They are well-suited to accompany hearty Roman pasta dishes.

The wines’ excellent reputation is ancient. The wines produced on the estates of the Roman emperors who holidayed in the Castelli were considered among the best in the empire. Towns closely identified with their wines include Frascati, Marino, and Velletri. No surprised, there are also festivals centered around the grape harvests.